Elizabeth Earl

Cook Inlet setnet, sport king fisheries closed; Bristol Bay breaks record

While Bristol Bay has broken its all time record for sockeye, Cook Inlet’s setnetters are already out of the water for the season because of low king salmon numbers. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order July 19 that closes the Kenai River king salmon sportfishery entirely, as well as the Kasilof River and Upper Cook Inlet saltwaters. The run has been disappointing so far, and looks likely to come in at around 10,000 large fish; that is far short of the lower end of the current optimal escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 large fish. “The 2021 king salmon late-run to the Kenai River is significantly below preseason expectations, without further restrictions the escapement goal for Kenai River late-run king salmon is not expected to be achieved,” said sportfish area management biologist Colton Lipka in the announcement from ADFG. The managers started the late run on July 1 with a fishery open to retention, but no bait allowed. Through the paired restrictions on setnetters, that meant they had only up to 48 hours per week to fish and limited gear: only two 29-mesh nets or one 45-mesh net per permit, compared to the three 45-mesh nets per permit they’re allowed to have without the paired restrictions. Then, last week, ADFG went to catch and release, which pulled setnetters back to no more than 24 hours per week. The move to close the river to king fishing closes the East Side setnets entirely. The drift gillnet fleet is still able to fish, as are the West Side setnets. As of July 15, setnets had harvested a total of 138 large late-run Kenai River king salmon, according to ADFG. For all sizes and stocks, east side setnets had harvested 955 king salmon. The paired restrictions have been a point of pain for East Side setnetters since 2014, when the Board of Fisheries enacted them with the stated goal of spreading the burden of king salmon conservation between the in-river and commercial fisheries. The Kenai River king salmon run has been struggling for more than a decade, and the paired restrictions have led to early shutdowns or significant restrictions for setnetters multiple times since 2014. Andy Hall, a Kasilof-area setnetter and president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said July 19 that setnetters had been expecting the decision but were disappointed. The paired restrictions fall disproportionately on them, he said, because in-river guides, dipnetters, and sportfishermen can continue to fish for other species, but setnetters are on the beach. “The paired restrictions are not fair,” Hall said. “They never have been. We’re going to be the only group in the Inlet that’s not fishing now; guides will be guiding, dipnetters will be dipnetting, drifters will be drifting, sportfishermen will be sportfishing, and we’re going to sit on the beach. And we took a fraction of the big kings taken this year.” Since the 2017 Board of Fisheries meeting, managers have only counted large kings—those 75 centimeters from mid-eye to tail fork or longer—toward the river’s escapement goal. The goal has also been increased numerically several times. In 2016, a department analysis recommended a sustainable escapement goal of 13,500 to 27,000 large late-run Kenai kings. The board members chose a higher goal, set as an optimal escapement goal, of 15,000 to 30,000 large fish. Hall said the setnetters have been watching the goal increase and shift to large kings-only as they lose more fishing time, and that the result has been to allow more sockeye into both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers than the sockeye escapement goals recommend. “The paired restrictions are not equitable. The concept of managing a sockeye fishery based on its absurdly low exploitation rate on a struggling king stock that has had the highest escapement goal in 25 years placed upon it is profoundly flawed,” he said. “The only comparable paired restriction would be if all (personal use) and sport fisheries on both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers were closed when a single targeted fishery was closed. I am not endorsing that by any means. It would be ridiculous, almost as ridiculous as the way the ESSN (East Side setnet) is managed.” KPFA sent a letter to Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang on July 2, predicting that the department would find itself in this position of whether to shut down king salmon fishing, and thus setnets, by late July. The letter asks Vincent-Lang to consider the impact of shutting down the commercial fishery on the local economy and to evaluate whether it is worth “sacrificing some very small number of large kings to prevent yet another year of dramatic sockeye overescapement and the peninsula-wide financial impacts that foregone sockeye harvest leaves in its wake.” Rick Green, special assistant to the commissioner, said Vincent-Lang did receive the letter and called KPFA to thank them for their input. “We are sympathetic to the economic impact of every decision we make, especially on a fully allocated resource like Cook Inlet fish,” Vincent-Lang said in a statement. “However, we are following the management plan agreed on by the Board of Fisheries on how to manage these mixed stock runs. Our primary mission is for sustained yield and we have projections that say we have no kings to spare.” So far, Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen have harvested a total of 649,715 salmon, 90 percent of which are sockeye. The pink salmon harvest has been increasing, and so far, they’ve harvested 28,036 of them. Bristol Bay booms On the other side of the Alaska Peninsula, Bristol Bay has tipped over the edge of its all-time record. Counts on Tuesday confirmed an estimated of 63.2 million sockeye, surpassing the 2018 bay-wide record of 62.95 million.The Nushagak District in particular has blown by forecast expectations, with a total run of 27.2 million sockeye and about 17.5 million sockeye harvested so far. It also boasted two record harvest days, with 1.7 million and 1.8 million fish each day. West Side area management biologist Tim Sands said the forecast was for about 12 million sockeye to be harvested from there. The escapement into the Nushagak District rivers is about 9.7 million total. Sands said there were hampering factors that prevented some extra harvest. “Certainly (escapement is) higher than we would need or like, but with all the tough weather we’ve had this year and the breaks early on for king conservation, we had a lot more fish going by,” he said. However, the banner harvest numbers may be slightly tempered by decreased fish size. ADFG samples have been showing that the average sockeye weight is down about three-quarters of a pound from historical averages, or about 4.5 pounds average this year. Stacy Vega, an ADFG biologist who runs the sampling program in Bristol Bay, said that may be in part because the average age of fish returning to the bay is declining. The fish may also be smaller because of the very large runs returning this year, increasing competition for resources. “When you have a lot more fish, they tend to be smaller, because there’s just less resources out there for them,” she said. The smaller weights may impact the ending-season value of the catch, despite record numbers. Dan Lesh, a fisheries economist with the McKinley Research Group, said those smaller sizes result in smaller fillets, which in turn affect the market value. “When you try to translate to value, that bump of harvest gets watered down quite a lot,” he said. “I think reporting on the numbers of fish in Bristol Bay should be tempered by the size issues.” The decrease in size may not affect the fishermen too drastically, as they are paid by the pound at the dock. This year, base prices are also higher than they have been in recent years. Last week, OBI Seafoods announced a base price of $1.25 per pound, and Peter Pan matched it, up from its own preseason base price of $1.10 per pound. Lesh noted that the prices still down from their high points several years ago, but that the increase is good to see for fishermen. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet salmon catches lagging, limited by Kenai king run

Commercial salmon catches are still lagging in the Central part of the state, but the Western coasts are pulling the overall numbers up with some recordbreaking landings. As usual, Bristol Bay leads the state in volume of sockeye harvested, on track to exceed its preseason harvest forecast. As of July 10, more than 18.5 million sockeye had been harvested, with a total run of more than 48 million. The Nushagak District alone has seen an estimated return of more than 24 million salmon, far past its preseason forecast of about 15 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Escapement in the Nushagak District has exceeded 7 million fish,” ADFG managers wrote in their weekly summary July 9. “Counts on all rivers have surpassed the top ends of the respective escapement goal ranges and a new record is set on the Nushagak River every day.” Daily catches in the Nushagak District have come down, though, as the Naknek-Kvichak District have risen. The latter’s total run has topped 14 million sockeye, with a harvest of about 5.5 million between the Naknek, Kvichak and Alagnak rivers. Catches are also blowing past expectations in the Alaska Peninsula. So far, more than 3 million sockeye have been harvested, more than double the recent 10-year average of 1.2 million. The pink salmon harvest is beter than average, too, with 3.3 million fish harvested so far; the chum harvest so far of 862,150 fish is also nearly double its recent 10-year average of 461,515 fish. Kodiak is ahead of last year and better than the forecast, though its sockeye catch has been tracking with prior averages, according to ADFG. So far, about 997,000 sockeye have been landed. In Southcentral, the Copper River district’s sockeye harvest is beginning to transition to its mid-summer pink salmon season. As of July 9, 292,696 sockeye had been harvested in the district, and ADFG estimated that 99 percent of the commercial harvest timing is complete. That harvest is about a third of the 2021 forecast of 652,000 fish. Cook Inlet is lagging behind past years, though. So far, commercial fishermen have harvested 306,731 salmon of all species, about 96 percent of which are sockeye. The forecasted harvest is about 2.37 million, most of which would occur in the next month before the majority of the fishery closes in mid-August and effort drops off. The run is still picking up on the Kenai. As of July 12, the sonar had counted 119,537 sockeye. In the Kasilof River, the sonar had counted 206,969 sockeye, with pinks starting to arrive in the river. ADFG estimates that the run is about 39 percent complete, with a projected final escapement of 490,000 fish, far better than the upper end of the escapement goal. At this point, the managers are trying to control escapement into the river. Commercial area management biologist Brian Marston said the department is considering using the 600-foot fishery where setnetters can place nets within 600 feet of the mean high tide mark. The fishery is intended to be more targeted and catch sockeye bound for the Kasilof River, and provides an alternative to fishing the terminal harvest area around the mouth of the Kasilof. So far, the runs have been slow, but it’s still early in the Kenai run. Marston said the offshore test fishery in the southern inlet showed some higher numbers than expected recently. “The (offshore test fishery) is basically average for the last couple of days,” he said. “Our preseason estimate is not for average (run size), but the OTF is showing average.” However, the sockeye coming in is only part of the problem. The other part is the Kenai king run, which has been anemic. On July 12, ADFG announced that the Kenai River late-run king salmon sportfishery would go to catch and release only for the rest of the season. The department’s projections are for the late run to reach about 10,778 large fish, or significantly less than the lower end of the escapement goal, which is set at 15,000. “The 2021 king salmon late-run to the Kenai River is significantly underperforming preseason expectations,” said Area Management Biologist Colton Lipka in an emergency order issued July 12. “It is still early in the run, but indicators so far are predicting a weak return similar to 2019 and 2020. Without further restrictions to harvest, the goal for Kenai River late-run king salmon is not expected to be achieved.” That means the commercial fishery is limited, too, as part of the “paired restrictions” model meant to conserve harvest of Kenai king salmon. Setnetters in the Upper Subdistrict are limited to no more than 24 hours of fishing time per week, and types and amounts of gear are restricted. That limits the commercial division’s ability to control escapement through openings. The department will reevaluate as the run develops and make changes as necessary, according to the emergency order. The sportfishing community on the Kenai River had been calling for the department to enact more serious restrictions on the late run of kings. The early run was limited to catch-and-release only and did make the escapement goal, but the late run opened with retention but no bait. Several fishermen and guides put out social media posts and letters asking anglers not to keep kings and calling for the department to enact stronger restrictions. Among the calls was one from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association asking anglers to limit their harvest to fish smaller than 34 inches. Ben Mohr, KRSA’s executive director, said he thought the call was effective and echoed the feelings already moving in the sportfishery. “I think it’s been really well received,” he said. “We’ve heard from the professional guide community as well as some of the more traditional folks that encourage catch-and-release, and we’ve all been pretty much on the same page. All of us, within hours of one another, put out the same statement. None of us coordinated it.” KRSA did not call for catch-and-release, but for a middle step of limiting size retention to fish smaller than 34 inches. That would have allowed the setnetters 36 hours per week instead of 24. King runs are dismal all over the state, from the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers to the Copper. Few systems are able to sustain open sportfishing harvest, and even fewer are able to support commercial fisheries for kings. Many of those rivers have little sportfishing pressure or development around them, too. Mohr said that points to a larger oceanic issue in the lifecycle of kings as the issue. “Our emphasis is on anglers writ large,” he said. “I think everybody that’s involved in the fishery realizes how dire the situation is and realizes that it’s on all of us to take appropriate conservation measures.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bristol Bay blows past harvest records

Bristol Bay fishermen are on track to blow past the preseason forecast for sockeye salmon yet again. Just before the Fourth of July weekend, fishermen in the Nushagak River district of Bristol Bay broke their daily harvest record two days in a row. On June 30 and July 1, fishermen in the district harvested 1.7 million and 1.8 million sockeye respectively. Daily harvests dropped back down in the Nushagak since, with a total of nearly 9.9 million sockeye harvested altogether. Bay-wide, the harvest reached nearly 15.8 million as of July 5, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Tim Sands, the commercial fisheries area management biologist for the west side of the Bay, said the run in the Nushagak is on track to come in greater than the forecast. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to be above average,” he said. “Me and my assistant are thinking over 20 (million fish). That would be the second-best run ever.” ADFG’s preseason forecast predicted a run of approximately 51 million sockeye bay-wide, with a commercial harvest of about 37 million. As of July 5, Fish and Game had counted the total run at about 25.8 million, around half of the total forecasted run. The Egegik and Naknek-Kvichak runs, on the east side, are around 4.6 million and 4.5 million respectively. Most of the catch on the east side so far has come out of the Egegik, though, with 3.6 million from there and 1.6 million from the Naknek-Kvichak as of July 5. Bristol Bay exvessel prices have started out relatively high as well. Peter Pan posted a season-opening price of $1.10 per pound. That’s significantly higher than the base price per pound paid in 2020, which was reported around 70 cents, though lower than the 2019 base price of $1.35. The pandemic reportedly increased demand for seafood nationally. Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association is trying to take advantage of the increased demand. Lilani Dunn, who oversees the retail marketing program for BBRSDA, said half of consumers are choosing seafood more often than last year. “Bristol Bay sockeye salmon is capturing this momentum as an opportunity to show home cooks how foolproof, healthy and delicious (seafood) is, and to feel comfortable making Bristol Bay sockeye salmon a part of their standard meal rotation going forward,” she said. Sands said the processors have been able to handle the volume of fish being harvested so far. One issue for the managers this year, though, has been the king runs. The Nushagak River has not met its king salmon escapement goal since 2018, and this year the run has been coming in slow. Sands said one of the challenges has been accurately counting kings that have gotten lost in the large numbers of sockeye moving up the river. “The kings represent less than 1 percent, 1 to 2 percent of the total fish going by,” he said. “It’s difficult to sort them out from the sockeye going by. We have other information that indicates that the king escapement is probably higher than the sonar count, but even with the sonar count with where it is, we think we could make our escapement goal.” King escapements coming up short aren’t unique to Bristol Bay this year. Cook Inlet is seeing its third year of lesser king salmon runs in the Kenai River, which in turn limits the commercial harvest in Upper Cook Inlet. The early run of king salmon on the Kenai inched its way into the escapement goal by June 30, with 4,131 kings. The managers restricted the sport fishery to catch-and-release only for the early run and began the late run after July 1 with no bait, which restricts the commercial setnet fishery to no more than 48 hours of fishing each week. The Kenai River sockeye sonar began counting on July 1 and has so far counted 32,337 sockeye. The Kasilof River is about a third of the way through its sockeye run, with a projected final escapement of about 485,000 fish, according to a commercial fishing announcement for Upper Cook Inlet issued July 5 that’s better than the upper end of the escapement goal. ADFG opened an extra fishing period for the setnets in the Kasilof section on July 6, saying the extra time would help control Kasilof sockeye escapement while minimizing Kenai king and sockeye harvest. King salmon farther north are doing fine, by contrast; the Deshka River run of king salmon hit 17,302 as of July 5, near the upper end of its escapement goal and significantly more than any year in the last five. The Little Susitna River king run is also within its escapement goal, with 2,474 fish having passed the sonar as of July 5, according to ADFG. Managing sockeye around weak king salmon runs also created some management puzzles in Prince William Sound. The Copper River king salmon run looks unlikely to make its goal this year, despite inside water closures. Commercial area management biologist Jeremy Botz, who manages Copper River finfish, said the continued years of king salmon shortages are having repercussions on managing for sockeye escapement. “I don’t know without having the fisheries evolve somehow … we’re going to continue to have one impact the other,” he said. King salmon runs are down all across the state. Copper River started the season with a long series of closures for sockeye, too, with delays on the fish making it past the ADFG sonar at Miles Lake. That sonar is far upriver from the mouth, though, and there is a significant delay on fish passage from the mouth of the Copper to being counted on the sonar. Now, the counts have come up, and the fleet is able to have regular periods on sockeye, Botz said. However, the sockeye harvest is lacking so far at about 222,601 sockeye. The forecasted season harvest of 652,000 sockeye is about 47 percent less than the recent 10-year average for the Copper River District. Cook Inlet is at about the same harvest level, with 218,056 salmon harvested so far, with about 96 percent sockeye. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Copper River reopens after delayed pulse in sockeye run

Copper River salmon fishermen got their nets back in the water for the first time in weeks on June 9 aiming for some of the sockeye headed upriver. The sockeye had been sparse at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s sonar at Miles Lake, but the count increased enough through June 8 to allow a 12-hour commercial drift gillnet opener. As of June 14, the sonar counted 321,656 sockeye, slighly ahead of the department’s management objective for the run so far and significantly ahead of last year’s count and on track to reach the in-river escapement goal. The Chitina personal-use dipnet fishery also opened June 10 for a 96-hour period. “Increasing daily passage at the Miles Lake sonar station indicates that the inriver goal is likely to be met and supports opening the Copper River District commercial fishery,” ADFG noted in its June 12 announcement. Harvest numbers in Copper River are overall still low; through the June 14 opener, in which 32,005 sockeye and 368 kings were harvested, the total harvest was 122,585 sockeye and 6,137 kings. The commercial Copper River king fishery traditionally fades well before the sockeye fishery is over. The ADFG sonar went into the lake on the south shore of Miles Lake, which based on historical counts means half the sockeye passing through have been counted. The flows in the Copper have been extremely low and cold so far, in line with the late and cold spring, which may be affecting the fish moving upstream as well. Downriver, the Prince William Sound Science Center runs a sonar site near Clear Martin River confluence with the Copper. The fishery depends on the counts of sockeye entering the river, but because of hydrology of the system, ADFG’s sonar is at the outlet of Miles Lake — nearly two miles upriver from the mouth. To help ADFG gather management data for the commercial fishery, the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association fund the PWSSC’s sonar. However, this year, their sonar didn’t gather much useful data. Rob Campbell, who manages the project for the PWSSC, said the flow of the river has changed to more of the water flowing down the western side. The sonar site is on the eastern. “We’re not seeing very many fish,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the fish’s fault. It is just really, really changeable down there.” It’s not entirely clear whether it’s just siting or whether sockeye behavior is a little different this year, particularly with cold water. In 2019, the soaring temperatures in the Sound placed heat stress on salmon, causing die-offs, but the Copper River was deep and cold enough that it wasn’t as affected as the shallower clear-water streams elsewhere in the area. The project may have to relocate in the future to provide more useful data, he said, but that’s something the PWSSC and the funding group will have to talk about. Early in the season, which is when the lower-river data is the most useful, Copper River sockeye salmon command high prices. That’s when an opening — or closing — means the most to the fishermen economically. “If that stimulated one extra opener, that could be like a million bucks into the fishery,” Campbell said. “Up until last year we lined up fairly well with the state sonar.” Copper River sockeye prices have been reportedly sky-high this season. Copper River Seafoods has two-pound packages of king salmon for about $144 and five-pound packages of sockeye for sale for about $250; Peter Pan Seafoods announced following the second drift gillnet opener of the year that the company would be paying $19.60 per pound for kings and $12.60 per pound for sockeye; those prices that are several fold greater than historical averages. Dan Lesh, a seafood industry analyst with McKinley Research — formerly the McDowell Group — said demand is expected to be strong and inventories are low, so prices are expected to be higher this season, despite the dearth in actual fish on the docks so far. “The general story is that most participants in the salmon industry are feeling optimistic about this year,” he said. “The harvest volumes in general are below long-term averages, but they’re still expecting prices to be strong.” Despite the economic damage from the pandemic in many parts of the U.S. economy, demand for frozen seafood in grocery stores and other retail locations reportedly increased. Copper River salmon, and Alaska wild salmon in general, is typically considered a premium product and thus commands a premium price, available to those with more income. People were not spending as much on travel or food service, and there was plenty of income still accumulating, Lesh said. “One of the things we need to understand with the pandemic is that we actually had unprecedented high personal incomes last year,” Lesh said. “People are making money and they’re not spending it as much.” However, Copper River prices don’t always translate elsewhere in the Alaska salmon market. Lesh said it can’t be assumed that the price will stay similarly higher than usual in other fisheries as more wild sockeye hits the market. Bristol Bay will come online in the next few weeks, with forecasted harvest of about 37 million sockeye, which is about 13 percent greater than the average harvest in the last decade. Upper Cook Inlet is gearing up to begin its sockeye harvest as well, though sonar counts do not begin on the Kasilof River until June 15. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Reinsurance program keeps rates down despite pandemic

Despite the economic upheaval of the last year, Alaskans on individual health insurance plan premiums got a little break this year. The state’s two remaining individual health insurance plan providers on the marketplace, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield and Moda Health, declined to significantly raise rates for 2021. While Moda’s stayed close to flat, Premera filed for a slight decrease: about 4.5 percent less on average. For a consumer on the average Bronze plan through the health insurance marketplace, that’s about $435 a month compared to $448 last year, and down about $100 a month since 2018, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It’s hard to say what effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had exactly on insurance rates, and it’s not entirely clear what will happen in 2022 yet. Nationally, 2021 individual plans rates varied widely, though in Alaska, the premium rates were trending down even before the pandemic. That’s in part because of the state’s ongoing innovation waiver 1332 reinsurance program, which began in 2017. That reinsurance program played a major role in Moda Health’s decision to reenter the state market in 2020, said Vice President of Strategic Marketing Jason Gootee. The Oregon-based company withdrew from the state in 2016, citing difficult a financial situation in the Alaska market, but filed again to reenter the market in 2020. “I would say (the reinsurance program) was one of the driving reasons that it made sense for us to reenter,” he said. “When we left the market, we had a considerable amount of business footprint in Alaska … it was a hard decision to make to leave the individual when we did, but it was necessary due to the financial situations of that market. We were seeing double digit rate increases for consumers every year.” The reinsurance program lifts some of the burden from insurers by taking their most expensive individuals — highly expensive or catastrophic health cases — and directing their premiums to a nonprofit called the Alaska Comprehensive Insurance Association. That nonprofit then uses the broader individual market to spread out the costs for those individuals, lessening the cost to individual insurance providers. Since the program took effect, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, which remained the sole insurer in the marketplace from 2017-20, has lowered its premiums on the individual market for several years. The state is set to receive about $78.5 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to support the program, according to a March 1 announcement from the Alaska Division of Insurance. The announcement notes that about 84 percent of Alaskans on the individual market qualify for subsidies through the insurance marketplace. The reinsurance program is, however, a waiver program, riding on the federal government’s approval to continue. Gootee said it’s speculative whether Moda would remain in the marketplace should the reinsurance program be discontinued, but the company has been in the Alaska market since 2004 and would like to remain there. Since reentering, it only offers plans in the Southcentral communities of the Mat-Su, Anchorage, and Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks, and the Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island areas. That covers a significant part of the population, and Gootee said the company hopes to phase in other areas of Southeast in coming years, largely depending on the development of network partnerships. The COVID-19 pandemic threw a curveball into the health care industry in multiple ways, particularly in how non-emergency services were used. That was one sector of the industry that dropped, particularly after Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s emergency mandates blocking elective procedures in spring 2020 to maintain hospital capacity in the early days of the pandemic. While insurers had to tackle a variety of new procedures and considerations in light of the pandemic, costs for items like those elective procedures went down. Premera issued some ratepayer relief programs, such as waiving copays for all COVID-19-related treatments. Premera spokesman Jim Havens said the company could not comment on how the pandemic would affect its rate filings for 2022. Gootee said it was too early to say what Moda’s rates would look like, but that the company’s 2021 rates did take effects of the pandemic into account and that the 2022 rates were “looking good.” He said one thing that changed everywhere during the pandemic, including Alaska, was a significant increase in the use of telehealth, which has been identified as a less expensive alternative to providing care. “I think every carrier is taking their own different approaches to it, in terms of how you account for the pandemic,” he said. “It certainly has changed the health care world quite a bit. In some cases you saw utilization go way down and then spike right back up. In both (Alaska and Oregon), telehealth utilization just skyrocketed. It’s stayed relatively high.” Nationally, health insurance premium rates for 2021 are all over the board. Gootee noted that that may be in part because the effects of the pandemic have not been universal; some areas were hit harder than others, and insurers and state governments handled the pandemic differently. The Kaiser Family Foundation notes that insurers across the country have largely been leaving rates close to their 2020 levels, citing low medical loss ratios and profits in the last year. Insurers on the individual market in Alaska will be due to file their rates for 2022 this summer. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

School of Nursing keeping up amid COVID-19

Last spring, the University of Alaska’s School of Nursing moved quickly to get its 2020 graduates out the door and working on the frontlines as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated. This year, it took equally quick steps to make sure its continuing students got their chance at clinicals and other hallmarks of nursing school, even in the middle of a pandemic, so the pipeline of new nurses wouldn’t be cut off. That proved extra challenging as the health care industry buckled in for one of its toughest years in recent memory. But the school is still planning to graduate its class of 2021 with full credentials, with no notable drop in enrollment. School of Nursing director Carla Hagen, who took over in October last year, said there was a slight delay in admissions, but no overall effect on the student population in the college. “If anything, and I don’t believe this is a change, we have more applicants than the (space) to educate,” she said. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the Lower 48 before it did in Alaska, but the state was on edge preparing for it in February and March. In mid-March, amid the early concern about the spread of COVID-19 and hospital capacity, the nurses working in the clinical settings around Anchorage were withdrawn and transitioned to other learning methods. That group already had about half their clinical hours, and were able to graduate with few concerns. “And we’ve lived in Zoomville since that time,” she said. It presented an issue for the next group of students, who didn’t have access to the normal clinics to do their in-person work. Instead, with classes directed virtually, the students were directed to simulations, which Hagen said have improved a lot over the years. While having students back in person and in clinics would be ideal, guidance related to the safe reopening of colleges and a desire to preserve personal protective equipment for frontline medical workers drove decisions to continue with the virtual options, she said. Nurses work in clinical settings in a variety of specialties, including medical/surgical, obstetrics, and psychiatric. While many of the specialty settings were not available this year, the college was able to reintroduce students to the medical/surgical environment in the fall, and all students were able to go back into acute care environments in the spring, Hagen said. As of the spring, no cohort of students has had to go with entirely virtual experiences. However, the virtual simulations offered some benefits. For one, there’s no assurance that a nurse on duty in the ER may come across an acute case; virtual simulations can assure they’ve had some exposure to those situations, Hagen said. “Even in a hospital setting, there’s no guarantee they’ll be there when the person has the heart attack or the subdural hemorrhage,” she said. The School of Nursing also operates outreach sites across the state, including in sites like Kodiak and Bethel. Those sites also can benefit from the simulations, as they have smaller hospitals and may not have exposure to every kind of case, she said. In the future, UAA will likely continue down the path of incorporating virtual learning into its education. However, the simulated learning can’t replace everything, she said. “Would we like them to be there? Of course,” she said. “There’s something about nursing and communication. It’s an art and a science.” The School of Nursing made other changes to its curriculum this year, too, separate from the pandemic. The course of education, still the same number of credits, is now whittled down to four semesters rather than five, and a number of curriculum changes have gone into place. There continues to be interest in the program, and its reported employment rate after graduation is high. According to its report to the state Board of Nursing in October 2020, more than 80 percent of students in the associates and bachelor of science programs pass the nursing exam on their first attempts, and 79 percent of graduates from the bachelor’s and graduate programs found jobs within three months. Within six months, 94 percent were employed. Hagen said Alaska is facing one of the worst nursing workforce shortages in the country over the next few decades, and training the state’s own is important to mitigating that. However, the size of the college is capped, in part due to a lack of availability of faculty. Attracting qualified nursing education faculty is a challenge, in part because the pay for practicing nurses is better than for nursing educators, she said. The University of Alaska is also facing increasing budget pressure as the state tries to reduce its spending to address a chronic budget shortfalls. Hagen said she didn’t know exactly how the budget cuts being discussed in Juneau would affect the School of Nursing specifically, and while she said she wasn’t concerned about closure, the cuts had affected the college in the past. “I’m anxious to see the resources to support the programs we need,” she said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet fishermen face poor forecast, federal uncertainty

Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen are facing pressure from two directions in the upcoming season: one is the looming potential for a complete federal waters closure, and the other is another poor projection of sockeye returns. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s sockeye forecast issued April 8 predicts a total return of 4.4 million sockeye to the upper Inlet, which includes major salmon-producing waterways like the Kenai, Susitna, and Kasilof rivers A return that size would allow for a commercial catch of about 1.6 million sockeye, a little more than half of the average in the last 20 years. The Kasilof River’s run is projected to be about 881,000 sockeye, about 12 percent less than average, while the Susitna River is forecast at 436,000, or 16 percent better than average. Fish Creek is also projected slightly above the average, with 92,000 expected to return. The Kenai is the largest producer of sockeye in the Inlet, with about 2.3 million projected to return there this year. However, that’s about 1.3 million fish less than the average in the last 20 years, and means a significant decrease in the number of sockeye available for commercial harvest. Added to the allocation to the large sportfishery and personal use fishery on the Kenai, and the commercial harvest in Cook Inlet would be much smaller than in past years. That’s even if they get a chance to harvest it. Last year, setnetters on Cook Inlet’s East Side spent fewer hours in the water than usual in July, the height of the season, because of extremely poor king salmon runs to the Kenai River. Part of the management plan says that if the king salmon runs aren’t projected to meet escapement goals, an increasingly stringent set of management measures go into place, removing bait and retention from the sportfishery, reducing the number of hours allowed in the setnet fishery, and restricting the area in which the drift gillnet fleet is allowed to fish. The late run of kings to the Kenai is forecast at 18,046 fish. That’s just more than the lower end of the escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 for the late run. It’s very low — the fifth-lowest in the last 36 years, according to Fish and Game — but it would still be better than 2020’s poor return of about 12,216 kings. “Based on the forecasted run size and if harvest rates are average in both sport and commercial fisheries, the Kenai River late-run king salmon large fish (optimum escapement goal) may not be met without a reduction in sport and commercial harvest of this stock,” the department states in the outlook. The Northern District, which starts north of Nikiski and covers up to the area around the Susitna River, is facing a similar restriction. The king salmon run to the Deshka is projected to be around 11.464 fish, which is just above the lower end of the escapement goal. ADFG notes that harvest will probably need to be reined in to make sure that run makes its goal. Sportfishermen can’t keep king salmon in the Susitna or Little Susitna rivers, and setnetters will only get 6-hour fishing periods targeting kings in May up through June 21. “If the run is stronger than expected and retention of king salmon is allowed in the Deshka River sport fishery, reestablishing 9 or 12 hour openings in the directed king salmon commercial fishery may occur,” the department states in its outlook. The Northern District is scheduled to open May 31; the drift gillnet fishery on June 21, and the East Side setnet fisheries at varying times after June 28, with the exception of the Kasilof section, which can open as soon as June 20. The fishermen are facing the potential that this could be their last Cook Inlet salmon season in federal waters, too. In November, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved an amendment to the Cook Inlet salmon fishery management plan that would close all the federal waters in the inlet to salmon fishing. The decision came after a prolonged lawsuit and stakeholder process that resulted in the state refusing to accept delegated management under federal oversight, and the council voting to close the fishery with the potential open for further discussion from the federal government. If the amendment to the FMP goes forward, all the waters more than three nautical miles offshore in Cook Inlet would be closed to salmon fishing, primarily affecting the drift gillnet fleet. In some years, more than half of the drift fleet’s salmon harvest comes from the federal waters. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association and the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund, whose lawsuit over the council’s decision in 2012 to remove Cook Inlet from the federal salmon FMP in the first place, have argued that this decision is illegal as well. In a March 2021 statement, the organization stated that none of the four options considered by the council were acceptable. “The real problem for the State and ADFG was the fact that a proper process and delegation of authority under the Council’s scrutiny, or (National Marine Fisheries Service’s) scrutiny, would expose the reality that none of the Cook Inlet management plans, escapement goals and in-season management practices comply with the (Magnuson-Stevens Act) or national standard requirements,” the group said in its statement. “None of these plans, goals or practices will meet the requirements of federal law, because they are so flawed, unsustainable and scientifically invalid.” The decision is under review by the National Marine Fisheries Service prior to publication in the Federal Register, when it will be available for public comment. The Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery has been worth an average ex-vessel value of $27 million in the last decade, with the vast majority of that coming from sockeye. However, last year’s was the worst ex-vessel value on record at only about $5.2 million, less than a fifth of the average. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

More relief on the way for fishing industry

Alaska fishing industry stakeholders can now apply for another $50 million in pandemic relief money, but they only have until the end of April to do it. The newest installment comes from the original CARES Act passed in spring 2020, announced by the Secretary of Commerce last May. The federal government made $300 million available across the states and territories with Pacific Ocean coast, with $50 million set aside for Alaska. Commercial fishermen, charter operators, processors, dealers, subsistence users, and aquaculture operations are all eligible. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, via the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, is helping to coordinate within the state. Rachel Baker, the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said there were two main reasons it took so long. First, the department didn’t want to issue a relief program that would have an application window in the middle of a busy fishing season and wanted to include the fall fisheries within the window. Second, the department wanted to gather public comments on the plan, which meant two comment periods and revision time. “Those two things together resulted in a longer time to develop the spend plan, and to have a longer eligibility period for applicants to qualify in,” she said. “In hindsight, if we’d known there was going to be a second round of funding, I suppose we might have thought about doing it a little bit differently.” ADFG has been working on its draft distribution plan since last fall, with the first version of its plan out for public comment in October. Fishermen and other fisheries businesses have been eligible for other forms of aid, including the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, since last year, but this round of targeted fisheries funding has been long awaited by the industry. But even then, it’s a pretty small amount in the grand scale of things. Frances Leach, executive director of industry group the United Fishermen of Alaska, noted that after depressed demand due to closed restaurants and other retail sources, fishermen across the state saw ex-vessel value declines in the neighborhood of 25 percent last year. “By the time it’s all said and done, (the relief amount is) not a lot,” she said. “When you factor in the amount of commercial fishermen than we had and what we lost, our prices were the worst they’ve been in decades.” The distribution plan is largely based on past revenues compared with pandemic-related losses, with a few exceptions; the subsistence group will receive 5 percent, the aquaculture group 1 percent, and the sport charter group 27 percent. If the amounts had been strictly based on past revenues, the sport charter section would only have received about 5.5 percent, according to the final approved spending plan, which may not account for all the losses the sector experienced in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions. “Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 15 of 2020, the Department of Fish and Game has seen a 54 percent reduction in nonresident sport fishing license sales compared to 2019, nearly $9 million in losses,” the spending plan states. “This dramatic reduction in license sales is only one indication of impacts to the charter sector.” Baker said determining the amount to give to the sportfish charter sector is not entirely based on a formula, in part because the state doesn’t collect the same level of revenue data from charters that it does from commercial operations. The allocation decision was based in part on qualitative information, acknowledging the fact that the charter sector heavily felt the impact of the pandemic from loss of tourism, she said. To qualify for funding, applicants have to show that they lost at least 35 percent in fishery participation revenue between March 1 and Nov. 30, 2020, as a direct or indirect result of the pandemic. Applicants have to have at least been fishing since 2018 and have to be able to provide documentation showing the revenue amounts. One change between the draft plans and the final is that applicants have to either be Alaska residents or nonresidents who did not apply for aid in another state or territory, meet all the requirements, and did not receive a Section 12005 allocation. At-sea catcher-processors have to apply to their homeport state, and nonresident charter operators who don’t have an Alaska business license have to apply in their state of residence. After administrative fees, about $49.4 million is available for distribution. Of that, $17.3 million is set aside for commercial fishermen, $15.8 million for processors, $13.3 million for sport charter operators, $2.5 million for subsistence users, and $493,711 for aquaculture operations. Each application type has a subset of requirements. Applications can be submitted on paper or electronically to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, but there’s a difference in deadline. Those submitting applications electronically have until April 30, but anyone mailing in a paper application has to postmark it on or before April 23. Any late applications won’t be processed. The December 2020 omnibus COVID-19 relief bill includes another boost in fisheries-specific relief funding, but the amount and distribution plans have yet to be finalized. Baker said the state doesn’t know the exact amount or timeline for new relief funds yet from that bill. She encouraged anyone with questions about applying to read through the spending plan, which is available on the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission’s website. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Board of Fisheries reverses decision to double up meetings

After the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the normal Board of Fisheries meetings, the members were left with a choice: delay all meetings by a year, or double up in the next cycle and try to catch up? On March 8, the board decided to reverse an earlier decision and postpone its meetings scheduled for the 2021-22 cycle to the following year, and conduct the meetings moved back from 2020 to its 2021-22 meeting slots. That means the normal interval between meetings will be delayed by an extra year, but it avoids the board members, staff, and members of the public from having to jam two cycles into the space of one. Now, the Southeast and Yakutat finfish and shellfish meeting, the Prince William Sound/Upper Copper and Upper Susitna Rivers finfish and shellfish meeting, and statewide shellfish meetings will be held in early 2022. That gives the board and staff enough time to put out a call for proposals and plan to hold meetings in person. Regular Board of Fisheries meetings are busy, often-crowded affairs. Stakeholders come from all over an affected region and participate in committee meetings, talk personally with the board members on breaks, and work in private groups on proposals during the meeting days. In the larger regions, like Cook Inlet and Southeast, the meetings can stretch up to two weeks at a time, with meetings running all day. In the fall, the board members opted not to hold this year’s meetings via teleconference or with limited attendance because of issues with equitable access. But in January, to avoid a yearlong delay, the board members voted to hold two meetings at once. During a meeting March 8, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang emphasized that the department does not have the money to do that. Estimates place the cost to do that at about $500,000, he said. The governor has not proposed extra money in the ADFG budget for that purpose. “It is not my intent to rob Peter to pay Paul to double up on meetings,” he said. “From the chair I’m sitting in, I’ve heard a lot of consternation and potential concern about doubling up on meetings next year.” Many of the public comments raised concerns about the plan. A number of fisheries trade groups, including the United Fishermen of Alaska, Kodiak Seiners Association, Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association and North Pacific Fisheries Association, wrote to ask the board to delay the next meeting cycle by a year rather than double up. Multiple commenters said they thought the doubling up would leave the ADFG staff and citizen Advisory Committees without enough time to evaluate and comment on the proposals within the cycle. Several processors also opposed the move to stack meetings, including OBI, Icicle, Silver Bay Seafoods, and the Pacific Seafoods Processors Association. They cited similar concerns as the fishermen, including a lack of time for public process and the additional funding for ADFG. “With stakeholder input unnecessarily compromised and ADFG limited in its ability to present data, Alaskans would be left without the regulatory system that traditionally based decisions on broad public input and the best available science,” wrote Abby Frederick, Silver Bay Seafoods’ Director of Communications. A handful of commenters did support the stacking, including the Chignik Intertribal Coalition. Chignik has experienced near-complete sockeye run failures in two of the last three years and the community wants the board to address the run failure sooner rather than later, wrote Chignik Intertribal Coalition President George Anderson in a letter. If the board does not double up on meetings, Chignik’s meeting will not come up until the 2022-23 cycle. “In Chignik’s fishing history never has there been such a collapse of both its sockeye salmon runs,” Anderson wrote. “Chignik is in economic and cultural peril. Time is not on our side.” Several of the board members who initially supported doubling up changed their minds, in part because of the cost problem. Board member Gerard Godfrey said during the meeting that he didn’t want to hinge the decision on the Legislature possibly approving funds. “I’m not interested in playing that game myself,” he said. “I’m not interested in waiting a number of months to find out whether or not this is feasible. And the overarching (issue) is that this situation is nobody’s fault, but the most equitable way to deal with it is to not double up.” Several other members commented that they would change their vote for similar reasons and because of the strain on staff to prepare. Several others noted that the board does have an emergency process, where if a fishery has a legitimate emergency come up out of cycle, stakeholders can petition the board to deal with it sooner, as long it as it meets the criteria of being unforeseen and a threat to the fishery. The decision to delay the meetings originally set for 2021-22 passed unanimously, and dates for the upcoming meetings in 2022 are still to be determined. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Act signed to aid young fishermen

After years of refinement and hearings in Congress, the Young Fishermen’s Development Act was finally signed into law on Jan. 5. The act lays out funding and a structure for workforce development and education programs for young commercial fishermen across the country. Rep. Don Young, the original sponsor of the House version of the bill, noted that young fishermen face more obstacles than in the past, including new barriers to entry, limited training opportunities and a global pandemic. The bill directs the National Sea Grant Office within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a matching grant program specifically for training, education, outreach and technical assistance for young fishermen. Recipients would have to be collaborative state, Tribal, local, or regionally based networks or public-private partnerships, according to the bill. The grants won’t be able to be used for purchasing licenses, permits, quota or any other harvesting rights. “Our legislation is about supporting the livelihoods of fishing communities across the nation by making the next generation aware of the opportunities available in the commercial fishing industry,” Young said in a press release. “This is a tremendous victory, but my work on behalf of our fishing fleet is not done. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our fishermen, processors, and countless others who depend on a thriving seafood industry. Now that the 117th Congress has begun, I want our fishermen to know that I will continue fighting for a safe and prosperous future for this vital sector.” In 2016, Alaska’s average commercial fisherman was older than 50, and rural resident permit holdings had fallen by more than 30 percent. That movement away from locally owned fisheries and the aging of the fishing fleet drew concern from groups like Alaska Sea Grant and the Alaska Marine Conservation Network, prompting the groups to form committees on policy reform to help bring more young people into the fishery. High on their list of concerns was the cost of entering limited-entry fisheries like salmon or halibut, where permits or individual fishing quota, or IFQ, are expensive, in addition to boats and equipment. A report published by a group of fisheries policy researchers in 2017 provided a list of recommendations to help reverse these trends. The first three recommendations all had to do with finding nonmarket-based solutions to facilitate new entry into the fisheries, such as community trusts that could hold permits or establishing apprenticeship programs. The bill does allow the grants to be used for “mentoring, apprenticeships, or internships,” but the other uses are primarily education in topics like vessel and engine care, maintenance and repair, sustainable fishing practices, business practices and direct marketing. Grants are for up to three years and $200,000 each. The bill indicates appropriations to begin in fiscal year 2022. The bill’s signing was overshadowed by the chaos of the invasion of Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, but the act was hailed by the Alaska commercial fishing fleet as a step in the right direction to reverse the aging of the average fisherman in the state, known as “the graying of the fleet.” While commercial fishing crews remain relatively young compared to the overall population, permit holders and vessel operators are among the older demographic, and younger fishermen are not moving into the fleet as permit and quota holders to replace them. The Marine Fish Conservation Network, a national sustainable fishing advocacy group, praised the passage of the bill as a step in the right direction for young fishermen. Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and co-chair of the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s Policy Council, said there is plenty of other work to do to help young fishermen, but the Young Fishermen’s Development Act is a win. “It’s a piece of what needs to be done, not all of it,” she said. “It’s not an end-all-be-all, but it is an important step.” Industry group the Fishing Communities Coalition — of which ALFA is one member — essentially wrote drafts for the act, Behnken said. Initially, there was interest in including help for fishermen seeking to buy into fisheries through quota or permits, but quickly found that there was little support for that among industry or in Congress. In the interest of moving the bill forward, the provisions were dropped. But training is an important need, too, she said. The grants will help organizations cover costs for trainings that may help aspiring fishermen work their way into the industry, such as workshops on regulations and vessel repair and maintenance, Behnken said. In fisheries, which are naturally subject to the forces of nature, the establishment of training programs and a sort of ladder to climb may help offer some stability, she said. As to helping with the finances of getting into the industry, Behnken said the industry is looking to sources outside the federal government to help. The Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, a Sitka-based organization, runs an deckhand apprenticeship program to connect interested young fishermen with a small-boat skipper to introduce them to the industry. The program helps teach the apprentices how to approach the job and how to avoid certain pitfalls, such as negotiating a contract before getting aboard and how to negotiate all the gear required in Alaska’s commercial fisheries. The trust also runs a Local Fish Fund, which helps finance some of the cost of a down payment for quota, which is notoriously expensive. Since launching in 2019, the fund has helped provide $1.5 million in loans. Since the introduction of limited entry fisheries, permits have gradually been siphoned away from rural and local fishermen, impacting communities. Behnken said the goal of efforts like the Local Fish Fund is to help reverse some of that movement. “The escalating cost of entry has really marginalized rural communities, native communities—anybody with limited access to capital,” she said. The text of the act does not give a specific timeline for the development of the program or the first distribution of grants. Young’s office did not return a request for an interview. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Two COVID-19 vaccines offer hope to beleaguered health care sector

Health care has been at the center of the limelight since this past March when the COVID-19 pandemic really began affecting Alaska. Gov. Mike Dunleavy preemptively issued emergency orders meant to preserve hospital capacity in the event of case surges, shutting down elective surgeries and outside visitors. For hospitals and health care companies, which often make the bulk of their profit on elective surgeries and outpatient procedures, that was a serious financial hit even as their staffing was slammed with new work and safety protocols. The daily case numbers dipped a bit to 152 on Dec. 21 for the lowest daily count since October. Hospital staff also began receiving the first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. As of Dec. 20, 5,674 doses of the Pfizer vaccine had been administered, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Early news of allergic reactions from a staff member in Juneau and several others who received the vaccine raised alarms and made national news. There had been 11 documented allergic reactions in the state so far, with eight at Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau, two at Providence Alaska, and one at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. Two were identified as anaphylaxis, with one resulting in hospitalization for treatment. “Safety is a top priority, and these systems are closely monitored by the CDC,” said Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. “Reporting any adverse reaction is extremely important so we can continue to ensure the safety of these vaccines. All providers are encouraged to report all adverse reactions to the VAERS system so we can continue be as transparent as possible.” The state began receiving doses of a second approved vaccine, produced by Moderna, on Dec. 21. Between the two vaccines, the state has enough to vaccinate 61,900 people, according to an announcement sent out Dec. 22. That does not include the second doses, which have to be administered several weeks after the first doses. While the Pfizer vaccine has presented a challenge for rural Alaskan communities because of the extremely cold storage temperatures required to transport it, the Moderna vaccine has been seen as a better option. It only has to be stored at -4 degrees Fahrenheit, a much more accessible temperature for rural communities, and can withstand being thawed for much longer, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “The Moderna vaccine will help us reach more communities, especially those that have less access to cold storage,” said Tessa Walker Linderman, the DHSS co-lead of Alaska’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. “Having both vaccines provides us more vaccine, and more flexibility.” The vaccines may be a path to helping the state’s economy get back on track, though doses will be limited for a while and administered according to the state’s distribution plan. First on that list are front-line health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. After that comes EMS and fire service personnel, community health aides or practitioners, and health care workers providing other essential services that cannot be postponed or delivered remotely. The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association said in a Dec. 15 statement that it was pleased long-term care home residents and staff are among the first to have access to vaccination. “The vaccine is a lifesaving turning point in the fight against COVID-19,” the organization said in its statement. “This is what we have been waiting for and we hope to protect as many people as possible.” Looking forward, health care is again projected to be the largest growth area for jobs in the state in total number of jobs, but primarily in the long term. Ironically, even as hospitals prepared for a surge of demand as the pandemic entered the state, the industry began to shed jobs, primarily in ambulatory surgery centers and other outpatient clinics because of mandated closures in the spring. However, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development estimates that those jobs may not be gone for too long. “Ambulatory care, which is mainly the offices of various practitioners, will take the brunt of the loss as people forego preventive care or delay procedures through 2020 and potentially longer,” the department said in an October analysis. “We don’t know how long that will last, but the industry is sure to rebound quickly once conditions improve. As a result, we project growth of 9.2 percent, or 1,947 jobs, by 2028.” In the long term, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development projected that the health care industry would grow by about 10.3 percent between 2018 and 2028, which translates to just more than 5,000 jobs. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Some bright spots for high-value salmon, halibut in 2021

Going into 2021, salmon fishermen have some unanswered questions and at least a few promising forecasts to look forward to. Following the trend of the last several years, the salmon forecast for the 2021 salmon season in Bristol Bay looks positive. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a total return of about 51 million sockeye salmon, with an inshore run of about 50 million. That’s about 6 percent better than the average for the last decade and 45 percent greater than the long-term average. If the forecast delivers, that would mean approximately 37.37 million sockeye available for commercial harvest, with about 1 million of those available for harvest in the South Peninsula fisheries and the rest in the various terminal fisheries around the Bay. For about the last two decades, Fish and Game’s forecasts for Bristol Bay have generally been conservative; the runs since 2001 have, on average, outperformed the forecasts by 11 percent, according to the 2021 forecast. The forecasts for various rivers in the region vary from Alagnak, which is forecast to be down 32 percent in 2021, to the Igushik, which is forecast to be up 13 percent. “Overforecasting returns to some rivers while underforecasting returns to other rivers means that the overall Bristol Bay forecast is often more accurate than the forecast to any individual river,” according to ADFG. Entering an odd numbered year might mean better luck for pink salmon returns as well. Historically, odd-numbered years deliver higher overall catches of pink salmon statewide. Southeast appears to be on that list as well, though with some caveats. ADFG estimates a return of approximately 28 million pinks, which is better than the average over all years but low for odd-year returns in the region. Salmon forecasts for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet have not yet been published. Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association is forecasting approximately 4.1 million chums to return in 2021, which would be significantly better than the realized return of 2.6 million chums in 2020. The association is also forecasting a return of approximately 4.4 million cohos, which would also be significantly greater than the 2020 return of about 2.7 million. For the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, the predicted summer chum return is about 3 million; Douglas Island Pink and Chum is forecasting about 1 million to return, with about 611,000 of that available for common property harvest. 2020 proved a difficult year for many salmon harvesters, with underperforming forecasts in many regions and unpredictable markets leading to reduced prices. However, retail demand for wild sockeye stayed strong, according to seafood marketer TradeX, and low stocks due to underperforming fisheries may mean an increase in price due to constrained supply in 2021. Restaurant and food service outlet closures pushed down prices for farmed salmon and directed it more toward retail outlets, where it competed with wild salmon. Prices stabilized over subsequent months, but an increase in COVID-19 cases across the country this fall led to more restaurant and food service closures, putting more downward pressure on wild salmon prices, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Halibut outlook Stock numbers in the Pacific halibut fishery are overall still declining, but there are individual bright spots in some regions. The results from the 2020 fishery-independent setline survey showed a coast-wide decline of about 1 percent, the fourth year of declines, according to survey results presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. The trends individually varied from region to region, though, from an 8 percent decline in Region 2, which covers Southeast Alaska and British Columbia to a 1 percent increase in Region 3, which includes the Gulf of Alaska. Region 4 was not directly sampled in 2020 but projected to increase as well. The increase in Region 3 bucks a declining trend documented since about 2004. Pacific halibut catches and bycatch were down statewide in 2020, according to an analysis from the IPHC for the end of 2020. Total landings, including research, were down 6 percent from 2019, and non-directed discard mortality — also called bycatch — was down 23 percent. Recreational mortality was down 15 percent from 2019 as well. Unlike salmon, pollock and other seafood species that are exported, Pacific halibut is largely consumed domestically in the United States. That made harvesters in that fishery ineligible for tariff assistance when the federal administration offered some relief funds for fishermen affected by the ongoing trade conflict with China. However, halibut fishermen are eligible for pandemic-related aid, including in the latest round passed by Congress this week. The North Pacific Fishery Management council recommended a set of management measures depending on the final catch limits for the charter fishery in the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast Alaska as well. For the Gulf of Alaska, officially known as Area 3A, allocations generally include a daily limit of two halibut, with no annual limit per charter angler, Wednesday closures, one trip per charter vessel per day and one trip per permit per day. In Southeast Alaska, officially known as Area 2C, the management measures include a one-fish daily bag limit and a reverse slot limit, with sizes dependent on the adjusted catch limit. The measures also apply a 35 percent reduction in projected removals called a COVID Impact Buffer, as the pandemic has heavily affected the charter industry in Southeast in 2020. The IPHC meets in January to set catch limits for 2021. The meeting will be held online starting Jan. 25. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Year in Review: Cook Inlet closure ends 2020 as top fisheries story

Even a normal year in Alaska’s fisheries can be full of anticipation, but this year’s pandemic, management snarls and underwhelming salmon returns threw extra knots into the nets for commercial fishermen. Late this year, after a record-breakingly poor season, Cook Inlet commercial fishermen got an extra punch in the gut in the form of a complete closure in the federal waters of the inlet. The North Pacific Fishery Management’ Council’s decision drew outcry from hundreds of commercial fishermen, both about the actual content of the decision and the process in which it was introduced. The closure was the result of four alternatives presented to develop a fishery management plan, or FMP, after a years-long process resulting from a lawsuit brought by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. In 2016, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the council had to develop an FMP for salmon fishing in the federal waters of the Inlet rather than deferring to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as it had been doing. After several years of stakeholder meetings and expert reports to the council, the members were presented with four options, including an option introduced by the state for completely closing the EEZ. The decision, which would block commercial salmon fishing in the entire EEZ of Cook Inlet — where estimates say about 20 to 25 percent of the area’s annual commercial salmon harvest is taken —is not final yet. The federal rulemaking process requires approval by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and could take about a year. If the closure goes forward, stakeholders say it could completely kill the commercial fishery in Cook Inlet. Members of the council said at the December meeting they regretted having to make the decision, but were left with little choice after representatives of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang’s office said the state would not accept conditions of co-management of salmon in the Inlet. In addition to fishermen and trade groups, the Alaska congressional delegation has called the decision unfortunate. The Kenai Peninsula legislative delegation, including Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Reps. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, and Sarah Vance, R-Homer, spoke against the process and the decision to close the area. No. 2: Bristol Bay a bright spot among salmon harvests This year, the North Pacific failed to deliver for a lot of salmon fishermen. Copper River’s sockeye run, usually a high-value early fishery, was a complete flop. Managers had to close the fishery completely after several weak openers, leaving fishermen in the region with empty nets. To the west, sockeye runs started similarly slowly in Upper Cook Inlet and stalled completely when poor king salmon returns led to a complete closure for East Side setnets and restrictions for drift gillnets in mid-July. Commercial fishermen gnashed their teeth at the end of the season when the Kenai River exceeded the upper end of its sustainable escapement goal by more than 500,000 sockeye, according to ADFG sonar counts. Southeast posted poor returns in both chum and pinks, and atop that, pink prices were dismal. Bristol Bay and Kodiak were the only regions to deliver reasonably well for salmon, with Bristol Bay posting a total catch of about 39.2 million salmon, only slightly behind last year’s total. Kodiak posted a high pink salmon harvest, with about 21.2 million harvested. 3. USDA provides $50M in tariff relief Almost immediately after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration announced tariffs on goods exchanged with China. In retaliation, the Chinese government instituted tariffs of its own on American products, including seafood. That spelled trouble for Alaska’s seafood industry, which relies on China as a major trade partner. The tariffs weakened the market for Alaska’s seafood in Asia, leaving it already vulnerable to the economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $50 million in tariff relief for affected fishermen in fisheries ranging from Atka mackerel and geoduck to Pacific cod and salmon. Notably, though, the relief excluded Pacific halibut and sea cucumber harvesters. Though halibut is largely solid domestically, sea cucumber fishermen were affected directly by the tariffs. The money was only available to harvesters, and is restricted only to effects linked to the tariffs. For effects of the pandemic, fishermen were directed to the CARES Act. The aid was capped at $250,000 per person and was open until Dec. 14. Total aid to individuals is based on pounds, with the price depending on the species. 4. Emergency declarations sought for multiple fisheries While some fishermen had bad years, particularly in the salmon fishery, none had it as bad as Chignik. With dismal sockeye returns for the third year in a row, the Chignik commercial fishery didn’t open this year, and escapement still came in less than the goals. The community has been waiting for federal aid from its last disaster, the 2018 season, and just heard back in February with $10.3 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Chignik may not be the only fishery looking for help with its disaster in the 2020 season. The Cordova City Council passed resolutions in August asking for federal disaster declarations for the 2018 Copper River king and sockeye runs and for the 2020 sockeye, chum, and king runs in the region. The year started off on a sour note for Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishermen as well, with a complete closure to low numbers of available fish. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council announced the 2020 season closure late in 2019, the first time the fishery had been completely closed. Biologists link the decline in the stock to warm ocean temperatures dating back to the “the Blob,” an abnormally warm mass of water in the central Gulf of Alaska that has had far-reaching effects on fish stock dynamics. The cod fishery also requested a disaster declaration in 2018 and received an allocation of about $24.4 million alongside the allocation for Chignik in February 2020. The disbursement programs for both fisheries are being managed by the Pacific States Marine Commission

2020 Year in Review: Pandemic upends Alaskan economy

There is only one top story for 2020, but the tentacles of the COVID-19 virus have proven so far-reaching that it cannot be summed up with a single headline, despite the countless internet memes attempting to do so. The 2020 Year in Review looks back at the top 10 stories as the pandemic touched every reach of Alaska. 1. Job losses, shutdowns return Alaska to recession COVID-19 made its presence felt across Alaska’s economy even well before it actually reached the many corners of the state. The state economy started the year as it ended 2019; with incremental growth it appeared to be on a long, slow journey to recovery following three-plus years of recession. According to state Labor Department figures, Alaska had job growth of 0.4 percent and 0.3 percent in January and February, respectively, compared to 2019. However, the script flipped in March when — coinciding with “hunker down” orders first by the Municipality of Anchorage and then the State of Alaska — the state lost approximately 1,000 jobs, or about 0.3 percent of its workforce. Congress passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in late March, which sent most Americans checks of up to $1,200, boosted unemployment payments by up to $600 per week and directed roughly $1.5 billion to Alaska in anticipation of the challenges ahead. The lawmakers guessed right. The losses accelerated rapidly in April as business and travel restrictions persisted, cruise sailings were canceled, oil prices fell to near zero and it became clear the pandemic would not simply be a weeks-long inconvenience. At the typical time Alaska starts adding thousands of seasonal fishing and tourism industry jobs, the state instead lost nearly 40,000 jobs compared to March and approximately 44,000 jobs year-over-year. As of October, Alaska was still down nearly 29,000 jobs year-over-year, according to the Labor Department, with the most severe impacts to the oil and gas and hospitality sectors — some of the largest and most impactful industries in the state. The oil and gas industry directly employed about 6,800 workers in October, which was down more than 30 percent from a year prior. The hospitality sector was down 9,600 jobs, or about 27 percent of its workforce in October. Acting Anchorage Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson ordered dine-in service and restaurants and bars closed in December along with other restrictions on gatherings in an attempt to respond to increasing COVID-19 case counts and limited hospital capacity, so it remains to be seen exactly what added impact the latest surge in cases will have on Anchorage and the state economy as a whole. — Elwood Brehmer No. 2 Health care system responds The pandemic has put the spotlight on Alaska’s health care industry, for better or for worse, as the state tries to control outbreaks. With its small population, Alaska has a tightly limited number of available hospital beds and staff for in-patients care, particularly those in intensive care units. That’s especially true when some of those ICU patients are highly contagious and staff has to be extra careful going in and out of care wards for COVID-19 patients. Though the disease was slow to come to Alaska, it has made up for lost time, surging in the summer and again in the late fall, with cases topping 40,000 in December with 175 resident deaths and nearly 900 hospitalizations. Local officials responded quickly, with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s emergency declaration limiting elective surgeries and closing down hospitals to most of the public. That put a financial strain on hospitals, which make most of their cash flow from elective and outpatient surgeries, but freed up more staff and beds for COVID-19 patients. Later, when hospitals reopened for those procedures, they required negative tests for all patients. The University of Alaska Anchorage graduated some nursing students a little ahead of schedule in April, allowing them to move directly into the workforce to help during the pandemic response. The students were largely only a few hours away from receiving their diplomas and licenses, and with approval from the Board of Nursing, they were able to get temporary licensure and jump immediately into the workforce. But even with those relatively lower case counts and few extra workers, the strain on health care staff has been difficult since March. Health care workers have reported some burnout from wearing PPE for long shifts, extra time to take pandemic precautions, and the high level of stress. As community spread has increased, too, the number of infected health care workers has increased, putting strain on their healthy coworkers, who have to fill in those shifts because there’s no one else to fill the gap. — Elizabeth Earl 3. Oil industry rides rollercoaster Not likely a coincidence, the price of Alaska North Slope crude started the year similarly to the Alaska economy, on a very gradual increase. But the price for the state’s oil began falling sooner as the consequences from Chinese economic restrictions and a subsequent price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia were first reflected in February, when the average price for Alaska oil fell $11 per barrel from January. The decline accelerated in March when the price averaged $33 per barrel, or just about half of what it was in January. ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest producer, responded by announcing a cut of about $200 million from its budget for North Slope projects in mid-March. Oil Search, which is developing the large Pikka Unit prospect, similarly decided to cut its 2020 Alaska spending by about $70 million. Oil Search later announced it would push back the timeline for first oil from the Pikka Unit from late 2022 to 2025 as part of a revised design for the several billion-dollar development. The situation turned unprecedented in late April when the markets for domestic oil briefly went negative at the height of pandemic-induced restrictions. ConocoPhillips told its North Slope drilling contractor, Doyon Drilling, to turn off all of the rigs working in ConocoPhillips’ fields even before oil prices hit rock bottom and responded to their primary product being “worthless” for a time by curtailing North Slope production by approximately 100,000 barrels per day in late May and June. The company resumed normal operations — sans drilling — on the Slope in July after oil prices returned to and stabilized in the $40 per barrel range. Prices have since risen to about $50 in recent weeks on the hopes that COVID-19 vaccines will help push global demand significantly higher once again. ConocoPhillips also announced it would gradually restart its drilling program in late December. North Slope production bottomed out in June with an average daily throughput in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System of about 393,000 barrels, but jumped to average 477,000 barrels per day in August — the most in years for that month. Industry experts said the brief production boost, which has since subsided, was likely due to a slight buildup in reservoir pressure from ConocoPhillips’ curtailment as well as the deferment of numerous small mechanical field projects that historically reduce summer oil production on the Slope. — Elwood Brehmer 4. Tourism bust 2020 was the year that wasn’t for what had been the second largest private employment sector in the state after roughly a decade of growth. More than 1.3 million visitors who were scheduled to visit Alaska via cruise ship this year didn’t as all but a couple small vessel voyages to the state were canceled. And while tallies on visitors using other modes of travel are harder to quickly collate, it is clear that the prohibition of general border crossings into and out of Canada and a broad reticence to air travel resulted in a fraction of the roughly 2.3 million travelers expected in Alaska this year actually showing up. Leisure and hospitality employment peaked at more than 44,000 jobs in July 2019 after years of increasing visitor numbers but this year the industry’s employment peaked in February and was at just 28,000 jobs in July, according to the state Labor Department. The situation has been worse in Southeast, where the lack of cruise ships cut the industry’s workforce nearly in half. Leisure and hospitality businesses in the region employed approximately 2,400 workers in October, compared to about 4,100 a year ago. — Elwood Brehmer No. 5: Markets and mitigation take bite out of seafood When the pandemic first made headlines across the country in February, commercial fishermen didn’t imagine that they’d be digging into one of the strangest seasons in recent memory. Processors across the state rushed to make plans to get their thousands of workers, often foreign, to tightly packed plants in rural communities. Vessel owners and captains wrung their hands about how to get crewmen into the state or on board, who should pay for quarantine and how to safely deliver fish to dock every period. Prior to the season in Bristol Bay, some communities and members of the fleet called for a closure of the season to prevent COVID-19 from reaching the remote communities around the bay and their limited health care system capacities. However, the fleet and processors rushed to put together mitigation plans. As the season progressed, it seemed to work; outbreaks at processing plants were identified and contained, and though cases were reported across the region during the season, the health care system was never overrun. And then, after they’d gone through the headache and expense of how to operate safely in a pandemic, fishermen were left with uncertain international markets. Seafood prices tumbled, and the estimated value for the statewide salmon harvest came in at $295.2 million, 56 percent less than the 2019 value and the lowest annual value since 2006 after adjusting for inflation. Heading into the 2021 season, industry leaders see reduced inventory as an encouraging sign for prices. Demand for Alaska seafood at grocery stores has remained high, as buyers have still been looking for seafood but aren’t buying it from restaurants in 2020. — Elizabeth Earl No. 6: Schools go virtual with mixed results One of the most widespread effects of the pandemic this year has been for K-12 education. When many students and teachers said farewell before spring break in March, they had no idea they wouldn’t see each other again until at least August. Dunleavy declared a state of emergency in mid-March, closing K-12 schools across the state as a precaution and forcing many students and teachers into full remote classes for the first time. From the beginning, the decision has been controversial. For one, it caught many parents on a back foot, with no access to affordable child care and no way to work without someone to watch their children. At the same time, virtual learning — especially for very young students, like those in kindergarten through fifth grade — was not very common before this spring. Many parents, including those in Alaska, are not happy with results as they juggle work, monitoring their children’s schooling, and other responsibilities. School districts in Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Mat-Su Valley, and the Kenai Peninsula all made plans to go back to school in person this fall, depending on the rates of virus transmission in various communities, including sports. Almost immediately, schools began having to quarantine, with some connected to youth sports and others due to community spread. Anchorage pushed back its timeline for bringing all students back in person several times, keeping all students online, while the Kenai Peninsula divided its schools into regions and closed or opened them based on regional community spread. Mat-Su closed and opened some individual schools as cases warranted, but the result was similar: parents were unhappy and felt students weren’t keeping up with the education they would get in person. With the holidays possibly leading to case increases as people gather, school districts are cautious about bringing students back in person, even as parents push harder for it as students approach a full year without regular in-person schooling in many regions of the state. — Elizabeth Earl 7. Airlines grounded The travel restrictions imposed by the state and local governments in spring quickly led to the — ultimately temporary — demise of Ravn Alaska, the largest passenger airline in the state. State officials sharply restricted in-state travel in late March and by April 5 Ravn leaders had suspended operations and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Ravn executives said the airline lost 90 percent of its revenue nearly immediately after travel was disrupted by the pandemic. The decision to ground Ravn’s 72-plane fleet also meant its approximately 1,300 employees were immediately out of work as well. The year was better at Alaska’s namesake airline at least for the fact that they kept flying, but Alaska Airlines was forced to cut its workforce significantly to match the drop in air travel. Despite the fact that the pandemic did not tangibly take hold in much of the U.S. until mid-March, Alaska reported a $232 million loss in the first quarter and a cash burn rate of up to $400 million per month in the second quarter as the ostensive suspension of air travel continued. Alaska attempted to backfill some of the void left by the sudden grounding of Ravn by starting its seasonal service to Southwest Alaska in mid-May, roughly a month ahead of normal. Alaska also began year-round jet service to Dillingham and King salmon in October with smaller planes from regional sister carrier Horizon Air before. While it added some service in Alaska, as of September the airline had cut its workforce through voluntary leave and retirement packages and direct layoffs by more than 6,100 employees, or nearly 30 percent. A new Ravn ownership group has since restarted scaled-back service to the Aleutians and several Southcentral communities. As of mid-November the airline had hired back more than 300 employees, according to a statement from Ravn. Ravn Alaska was sold for $9.5 million in August following a bankruptcy auction to a new management team led by former commercial pilots and backed by California investor and entrepreneur Josh Jones. — Elwood Brehmer 8. CARES Act funds distributed, but not without difficulty The State of Alaska received about $1.5 billion in federal aid to mitigate the impact of the pandemic after Congress quickly passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in late March, but getting the money allocated and dispersed via multiple levels of government proved to be a slower process. State lawmakers who’d adjourned from the spring session because of the pandemic had the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee largely approve Dunleavy’s plan for the CARES Act money in their stead during a mid-May meeting. The Budget and Audit approval sparked a lawsuit from former University of Alaska regent and public interest advocate Eric Forrer, in which he and attorney Joe Geldhof argued the full Legislature needed to convene and appropriate the money. Legislators ultimately gathered in Juneau and approved the administration’s plan May 19, just six days after the suit was filed in state court. Rollout of AK CARES, the state’s primary small business aid program, was slower than anticipated as hang-ups in the application and review process delayed disbursements. State Commerce Department officials initially selected Anchorage-based Credit Union 1 in May to administer $290 million in grants of up to $100,000 each for small businesses in the state. However, the small community lender was soon overwhelmed with grant applications and when the state revised the program to simplify requirements for the grants in early August, CU1 had approved 511 applications totaling about $20 million from more than 2,500 applications with requests totaling $114 million. Commerce Department officials at the time also opened a new AK CARES application website and recruited additional administrative support from organizations statewide. — Elwood Brehmer 9. Legislature adjourns early The then-young pandemic gave lawmakers sufficient reason to pass a largely status quo budget and suspend the session March 29 without addressing any of the state’s structural budget imbalances. Many legislators started the session with relative optimism that some long-sought compromises could be reached on major budget issues, taxes and the Permanent Fund dividend with the prospect of running out of savings being a tangible threat and no longer an existential worry. That changed quickly in March when it became clear large gatherings were a hindrance to good public health. The Legislature formally adjourned May 20 following the harried approval of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plan to spend the state’s CARES Act money. Dunleavy vetoed $210 million from the budget in April but lawmakers did not attempt to override his vetoes when they briefly met in May. The early exit from Juneau meant the big issues remained unresolved and nearly $1 billion more is needed from the Constitutional Budget Reserve to fill the 2021 fiscal year deficit. The CBR is expected to hold $586 million at the start of fiscal year 2022, when the state is projected to have a deficit of more than $2 billion, according to the Legislative Finance Division. When legislative leaders declined to make a second round of PFD payments despite Dunleavy’s urging, the governor instead opted to start dispersing the $992 checks on July 1, the start of the state fiscal year and the first day the administration could access the money. The Legislature also did not vote on any of the board and commissions appointments Dunleavy made earlier this year, most notably the appointments of Abe Williams and McKenzie Mitchell to the Board of Fisheries. Dunleavy announced the new Board of Fisheries selections, along John Jensen’s reappointment April 1, after lawmakers had left Juneau. Williams is a Bristol Bay commercial fishermen and also the regional affairs director for the Pebble Partnership and as such his appointment has drawn intense scrutiny. Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes, a vocal opponent of the Williams pick, has said that if the appointments are not confirmed by the time the next Legislature meets in mid-January — a near certainty at this point — the process starts over. — Elwood Brehmer 10. Light at the end of the tunnel One of the bumpiest trips around the sun in recent history seemed to be smoothing Dec. 15 as the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines were distributed to healthcare workers in the state. The preventative treatments came many months ahead of even the most optimistic projections made at the start of the pandemic and arrived as the state was in the middle of its most severe rise in cases of the virus. News of the impending vaccinations boosted energy and financial markets in the weeks prior. Alaska oil hit $50 per barrel Dec. 10 for the first time since February and the Permanent Fund had recovered from first-half turmoil to exceed $72 billion in value for the first time by early December. In mid-November ConocoPhillips Alaska leaders announced the company would resume North Slope drilling operations by the end of the year after laying down all of its rigs in April in response to health concerns for workers at remote camps and collapsed oil prices. — Elwood Brehmer

North Pacific council votes to close Cook Inlet federal waters to salmon

Commercial fishing in Upper Cook Inlet is facing a dismal future after the North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved to close a major swath of the central inlet this week. The council moved to enact Alternative 4 of a proposed Fishery Management Plan for Cook Inlet, closing the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, in that area. Fishermen would still be able to operate in state waters, including the shoreline and up to three nautical miles offshore, but the EEZ would be closed to all gear types. According to council analysis, about 20 percent of the total salmon caught in Cook Inlet come from that area, and a little less than half of the total drift fleet salmon catch. The proposed FMP still has to be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, but the council members say their hands are essentially tied because the state says it won’t participate in co-management of the fishery. The council members were under a deadline to pass something by the end of the year. In 2012, the council passed an amendment to the Cook Inlet fishery management plan, or FMP, that officially delegated management to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But the United Cook Inlet Drift Association was not happy with state management, saying the state has failed to manage for maximum sustained yield to the commercial fishery and sued to seek federal oversight over the EEZ in the Inlet again. In 2015, the 9th Circuit Court agreed with UCIDA, and the council took up the issue of the Cook Inlet FMP again. Over the next four years, a stakeholder group and representatives from the council and the state participated in an FMP development process with the council members, hashing out potential ways to satisfy the court order to develop an FMP. The council finally arrived at four alternatives by the end of the October meeting: provide no management, cooperative state and federal management, complete federal management, or close the EEZ entirely. The fourth option, to close the EEZ, was not in play as a separate alternative until the end of the October meeting. After it came out as an option, hundreds of fishermen vocally objected, flooding the council with comments opposing the alternative. The majority of the public commenters and industry stakeholders preferred Alternative 2, which would have provided cooperative state and federal management. “We are intentionally being managed out of business, but we’re unable to defend ourselves against the agenda of our powerful state leaders, their appointed Board of Fish members, their Department of Fish and Game, and the powerful special interest groups that influence them,” said Matt Pancratz, a commercial drifter and resident of Nikolaevsk, a small Russian Old Believer village on the lower Kenai Peninsula. “We feel betrayed and powerless.” UCIDA, the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in the FMP rewrite process, didn’t like any of the options provided. David Martin, the president of the association, told the council the group believes none of the alternatives provided would satisfy the court’s order and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The missing piece hinges on Magnuson-Steven Act language about managing harvest of fish species “throughout their range.” UCIDA has argued that this language, in combination with the court’s decision, means the council should have authority to oversee state escapement goals and salmon management. Erik Huebsch, one of UCIDA’s vice presidents, blamed the state administration for failing to manage salmon in the Inlet. “What you all need to realize is that the state of Alaska’s management system for salmon is totally corrupted, and that it has been for quite some time,” Huebsch said. “There is no other way to describe it. Some of you on the council have witnessed that firsthand. The late introduction of Alternative 4 is a punitive action by the state because their corrupt behavior is being exposed, and they want to continue their malpractice with impunity.” Salmon management has largely been deferred to the state, in part because the species is managed by escapement goals in the rivers, which are in state jurisdiction. That’s true of Cook Inlet as well, where the predominant species in the commercial fishery — particularly in the upper Inlet — is salmon. ADFG manages salmon returns to a variety of rivers and oversees subsistence, sport, commercial, and personal use fisheries throughout the basin. That’s gotten more complicated over the past few decades as the populations of Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, and the Mat-Su Valley have grown, personal-use fisheries have been established, and sportfisheries have become major economic drivers for tourism. During the council FMP process, ADFG said the collaborative process provided under Alternative 2 would be too costly and have no benefit to the state. ADFG Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker told the council that the department would not agree to work together on management in that structure. “The conditions required under Alternative 2 that we talked about for delegated management authority to the state … those conditions are unacceptable in terms of our ability to participate in that process, and particularly the federal oversight and review process, could actually result in withdrawn state delegation authority,” she said. “That’s very concerning to me on one level and the additional cost of participating in the other aspects under Alternative 2 … they don’t provide any benefit to state management. If you have to make decisions with limited resources, in that aspect, that was what I meant by unwilling to accept the conditions required under Alternative 2.” The only commenter who supported Alternative 4 was the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. The alternative to close the EEZ makes the most sense with the options before the council, given that the federal government is not easily able to respond to in-season changes, the group said in its comments. The move to close the fishery could potentially push more fish to inriver users. But that’s one of the concerns the commercial fishermen have; if too many salmon, particularly sockeye, escape into the river past sportfishermen, the fishermen say it will overtip the biological carrying capacity on the river and cause a crash in the stock. ADFG biologists make recommendations to the Board of Fisheries to set escapement goals based on biological assessments and on harvest patterns, and the board makes final allocation decisions that include altering the goals. Several of the council members expressed reservations about voting to close the EEZ, acknowledging the negative impact on the commercial fishery and the communities. In particular, the cities of Kenai, Seward, and Homer all collect revenue from their commercial fisheries landing taxes. Council member Andy Mezirow, who lives in Seward, noted that this was a difficult decision, particularly for younger fishermen in Cook Inlet. “They put their faith in this council process, participated like professionals in the Salmon FMP committee, and if we adopt Alternative 4, this process has failed to serve them,” Mezirow said. “I’m concerned about the message we are sending these and other bright young fishermen who take the time and effort to participate. And finally, I’m concerned about what it means to make a decision that might result in the end of a fishery in my backyard that’s been prosecuted for over a hundred years.” However, he said the state’s argument and the council’s timeline pushed the vote, and said he hoped there could be an additional process outside the council to alleviate some of the negative impact to the fishery. Many Cook Inlet commercial fishermen were frustrated and angered at the decision. In a statement issued Monday night, UCIDA pointed to political ties between ADFG, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association as potential causes for the vote, saying, “The fix was in.” The Alaska Salmon Alliance, an industry group representing processors in Cook Inlet, expressed disappointment in a statement issued Dec. 8, pointing to Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang’s office as a source for the wrench in the FMP development process. There will likely be more challenges due to the state’s decision, the organization said. “Meanwhile, the State of Alaska’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude has frightening ramifications for other Alaskan fisheries,” the group said in its statement. “The state and the federal government have numerous cooperative agreements for managing many other fisheries around the state and this new policy by the Dunleavy administration can affect all of those.” The council ultimately voted to support closing the EEZ 10-0, with NMFS Regional Director Dr. James Balsiger abstaining. The fishery will likely not be closed for the upcoming 2021 season, as the FMP still has to make its way through the federal rulemaking process. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Crab harvests set: Kings still in decline, snow and Tanner see bump

This year has brought little good news for commercial fisheries, but the commercial crab fishermen in the Bering Sea are getting some in the form of some increased catch limits. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its 2020-21 total allowable catch, or TAC, limits for Bering Sea snow and bairdi Tanner crab, and Bristol Bay red king crab on Oct. 1. While the red king crab TAC slid downward again in the continuation of a long-term decline, the snow crab TAC ticked up significantly. A portion of the bairdi crab fishery will also be open again after being closed for the 2019-20 season. Commercial fishermen will be allowed to harvest a total of 45 million pounds of snow crab from the Bering Sea waters this year, with 4.5 million of that set aside for Community Development Quota groups and the rest for individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holders. That’s about 34 percent larger than the limit last season, which was also an increase over the previous year. Bering Sea Crabbers Association Executive Director Jamie Goen said that’s good news for the fleet. However, members of the fleet also think that TAC could have been a lot higher had the National Marine Fisheries Service been able to conduct its regular surveys. The federal surveys were canceled this year due to concerns about spreading COVID-19, and so the fishery managers weren’t able to get as much data as usual to make their limit decisions. When faced with a lack of information, fishery managers generally default to conservative management. Goen said this emphasizes the importance of data to the fisheries. “We think there is a 30-year high of (snow) crab out there,” she said. “We’re pleased with this year’s TACs… to me, (this year) stresses the importance of these surveys.” The Western Bering Sea bairdi crab fishery availability is good news, too. Last year, low survey numbers for mature female biomass in the fishery triggered a closure, despite fishermen saying they were seeing plenty of crab. The Board of Fisheries tweaked the management plan for bairdi, also known as Tanner crab, in the Bering Sea earlier this year, and the fishery is set to open in the Western district with a quota of about 2.4 million pounds, with 234,800 of those set aside for CDQ groups. The fishery in the Eastern district of the Bering Sea will remain closed this season, as will the St. Matthew Island section blue king crab fishery. The Board of Fisheries met just before the pandemic began in March and adjusted the management plan for the bairdi crab fishery to address the issue with the fishery triggers. “It was a great process,” Goen said. “They figured out how to create more stability in our fishery.” That TAC is still significantly lower than some of the higher limits between 2014-18, according to a report from the National Marine Fisheries Service to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. NMFS noted that the mature male biomass in the Bering Sea bairdi fishery is still declining, and is “approaching the very low levels seen in the mid-1990s to early 2000s.” Discard mortality is significant in both the bairdi and snow crab fisheries in the Bering Sea. According to reports provided to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for its Oct. 2 meeting, the most recent recorded discard mortality in the Bering Sea snow crab fishery was 33 percent of the total retained catch, the highest fraction on record. There wasn’t any bycatch of bairdi crab in the directed fishery last year because it was closed, but significant amounts of bairdi are regularly caught as bycatch in the snow crab, groundfish, and Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries. Bristol Bay red king crab harvests remain in decline. The TAC for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is set at approximately 2.6 million pounds, down about 1 million pounds from last year’s TAC of 3.7 million pounds. The fishery has been consistently seeing low recruitment, with mature biomass trending downward since 2009, though the 2020 biomass estimates are slightly higher than last year, according to a report provided to the NPFMC from Fish and Game biologists. The exact reason for the long-term decline isn’t certain, but it’s unlikely to bounce back at this rate to the highs seen in the 1970s. “Due to lack of recruitment, mature and legal crab should continue to decline next year,” the report states. “Current crab abundance is still low relative to the late 1970s, and without favorable environmental conditions, recovery to the high levels of the late 1970s is unlikely.” Goen said this isn’t surprising to the fleet, and many of the boats that participate in the red king crab fishery also participate in the snow crab and tanner crab fisheries. The Bering Sea Crabbers Association represents about 70 percent of the crabbers in the region. The crab fisheries are set to open on Oct. 15. What remains to be seen is how the vessels and processors manage the fishery under COVID-19 mitigation protocols. Commercial fishermen and processors all over the state scrambled in March to put together mitigation plans for the virus, looking for ways to control it in the normally cramped conditions aboard vessels and in processing plants. A number of processing plants around the state reported outbreaks among workers over the summer, but the number of cases tapered off over the summer. In Bristol Bay, coordinated response from the fleet and processors led to control of the pandemic and prevention of spread to the surrounding villages. Goen said COVID-19 mitigation is at the forefront of crabbers’ minds as they get ready to head out on the water. Some have had a head start at mitigation from tendering during the salmon season, as have the processors, but there are still issues to work out. Staffing has been a major issue for processors this year, for example. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Elders & Youth focused on language for virtual convention

In the days preceding the annual Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage, the First Alaskans Institute brings together teenagers, elders, and everyone in between for the Elders and Youth Conference. But like so many things this year, the usual attendees will have to be together while apart. The First Alaskans Institute is preparing for its first entirely virtual Elders and Youth Conference, set to begin on Oct. 11. The event will be livestreamed on firstalaskans.org as well as broadcast statewide on GCI’s channels 1 and 907, on 360 North, and ARCS. FAI isn’t providing any broad support to elders who may need help with technology to go online and participate, but may do so on a case-by-case basis, said Karla Gatgyedm Hana’ax Booth, the Indigenous Leadership Continuum Director for FAI. Throughout the conference, they’re also encouraging people to get up and move around, as they’ll be in front of a screen this year. The 37th annual conference will also be entirely free. Usually, attendees are required to register, but with the combination of online and broadcast elements this year, the institute decided to make the event free. Booth said the sponsors helped make that possible this year. “I feel like it wasn’t that hard to reimagine, because we just knew that we had to have this very important statewide event,” she said. “It had to happen, no matter what. We wanted to make sure we were being good relatives to our statewide community and provide something that could lift all of our spirits up in this time of COVID. I don’t think we ever had a doubt that we would host something, but I think the real challenge was figuring out what the format is going to be.” First Alaskans Institute announced the plan to go entirely virtual with the conference and the annual Smokehouse Gala back in July. Since then, the organizers have been reworking plans for how to take the events virtual, which will enable vulnerable people to stay home and prevent the spread of disease from a major event back to dispersed communities. The conference usually takes place in Anchorage, which is also the single largest city in the state and the center of the state’s COVID-19 pandemic. The Elders and Youth Conference always starts with an opening ceremony called the Warming of the Hands, and that won’t change, Booth said. Sunday Oct. 11 will run from 1-5 p.m., and the following days from Oct. 12-14 will run from 8:30-5 p.m. Oct. 12 also happens to be Indigenous Peoples Day, and the events of the conference will line up with that, including language workshops. “(On Monday) we’re going to have our ‘Living and Loving Our Cultures’ workshops, focused on language learning,” she said. “(We’ll be) adding extra time to that session as well, just to celebrate our languages even more, to allow people to really get into learning and practicing, and hopefully they’ll continue that learning after the conference, too.” Some things will look a little different. The Elder Keynote speaker — Dr. Rev. Traditional Chief Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village — will pre-record his message and make it available on Monday Oct. 12, Booth said. Gilbert is a tribal leader, Episcopal priest, Native knowledge and culture bearer and Gwich’in teacher, among other roles. The youth keynote speaker, Kiley Kanats Burton of Cordova, will follow suit on Tuesday Oct. 13. Instead of the regular dance group performances, First Alaskans Institute will air a compilation of the best Chin’an dance group performances over the past decade on Oct. 12 at 6 p.m., Booth said. Each day will begin with optional dawn prayers and well-wishes, which were requested by a community member last year and will continue this year. Workshops will pack the day, as they usually do, including listening circles, regional gatherings, and crafting workshops. For those who pre-registered before Sept. 24, the FAI staff have been mailing out some arts kits, Booth said. There are about 14 workshops to choose from, seven of which require kits. “(Some workshops are) cottonwood carving, cedar basket weaving, canvas rifle case sewing, salmon skin pouch sewing and embroidery, cedar bracelet making, acrylic painting, and COVID-19 mask sewing,” she said. “Some of our workshops that don’t require any kits.” The theme for this year’s conference is “Asirqamek Aprucilutna” in Sugt’sun or “Asisqamek Aprut’liluta” in Alutiiq, both of which mean “We are making a good path.” Language preservation continues to be one of the major goals in the conference, Booth said, the Alaska Native Preservation and Advisory Council appointed by the governor will hold a listening sessions during the conference as well. One of the events many people look forward to are the men’s, women’s, and LGBTQIA+ houses, she said. “They get to share their truth, they get to listen to other people’s truth,” she said. “I think for a lot of people, it adds to their healing journey.” “Part of our job is to host these dialogues,” she said. “We wanted them to be as engaging as we could make them in these virtual settings. You don’t have the same tools… we adapt, and we use what’s available to us. Just the physical experience of our participants being in a virtual meeting, it takes a toll physically on people. We know the importance of encouraging people to get up and take care of themselves. We will try to introduce things that are physical.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

AFN’s first virtual conference eyes 2020 Census, elections

The halls of the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage will be much quieter this October without the buzz of the thousands of attendees at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention. Instead, they’ll be plugged in from home, watching, listening, and participating to the virtual presentations of the 54th year of the event. The Alaska Federation of Natives announced the 2020 convention would be completely virtual this year back in August, looking ahead to the risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic. The AFN convention regularly brings people from all over the state, including from many far-flung communities off the road system. The risk of getting a large group of people together in an indoor facility was too high, according to the AFN. As of Oct. 6, there was still no agenda available for the full convention. It will be available on social media, KNBA radio, GCI channel 1, ARCS, and 360 North. “It was a really tough decision, but the health and safety of our delegates, participants, and attendees comes first,” said Julie Kitka, AFN President, in a press release. “The high risk factors of holding a large, indoor meeting, with lots of Elders and delegates coming in from across Alaska, far outweigh the benefits of gathering in person.” Instead, like the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference and so many other events this year, the organizers are converting the events to virtual ones. On Oct. 15 and 16, attendees will be able to watch pre-recorded videos and live presentations from Native leaders and elected officials as well as interactive panels and other workshops. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, will deliver the keynote address. This year’s theme is “Good Government, Alaskans Decide,” based on the upcoming federal election on Nov. 3 and the 2020 Census, two issues heavily affecting federal actions in Alaska and, thus, many issues in Native communities. Delegates to the AFN also traditionally meet during the convention. This year, they’ll meet virtually as well. AFN is requesting that delegates register as soon as possible, but they can register up until 10 a.m. of the final day of the convention, as it is entirely virtual. According to the delegate packet, some things will change: for example, the live debates on the resolutions and co-chair election won’t happen as usual. The election will happen through an e-voting platform instead. Because of the difficulty of ensuring equal participation among participants on the online platform, the packet also outlines types of resolutions that won’t be accepted. For example, endorsement of candidates or ballot initiatives for 2020 will be considered, and Elders and Youth resolutions will be considered at the Dec. 8 AFN Board meeting. Instead of the regular cultural dance performances, AFN will air a compilation of performances called “Quyana Alaska” over the two evenings as well, from 6-9 p.m. on the AFN Convention virtual meeting app, 360 North and ARCs, or by webcast. Though there won’t be an in-person exhibition hall with booths, there will be a virtual exhibition component, where artists and crafters can sell their work in an online marketplace created for the convention. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Boards of Fisheries, Game contemplate challenges of meeting season

In a fall littered with elections and other political fencing matches, two other political bodies are debating whether to meet at all or just punt until next year: the boards of Fisheries and Game. The boards, particularly the Board of Fisheries, host regulatory meetings every winter that bring stakeholders from all over the state together. Those are problem during the coronavirus pandemic, and the boards aren’t quite sure what to do about it. The Board of Fisheries, for one, is hoping that the situation will be better by the middle of next spring, when it’s still tentatively scheduling its meetings for the Prince William Sound, Southeast/Yakutat, and statewide shellfish meetings. While other governmental bodies have transitioned to meeting on Zoom and taking public comment via phone, the Board of Fisheries process doesn’t fit well into that model. For one, the stakeholders are spread all over the state, where internet connectivity isn’t always reliable or fast enough to cope with video meetings. For another, the board depends on public participation. Throughout the meeting, the board members gather comments from the public in attendance. During breaks, the public also regularly works directly with board members off the record on revisions to proposals or new language. These meetings all happen during the winter, indoors, and depending on the meeting, more than a hundred people may be gathered in a relatively small space for hours. Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight told the board during a work session on Sept. 16 that when the staff surveyed the public about what to do, the results were mixed, but most people who attended meetings in the past were not in favor of virtual meetings. The board talked about potentially limiting attendance at an in-person meeting instead, but then staff would be faced with how to decide who got to come. On top of all that, many people who responded said they were fairly concerned about catching the COVID-19 virus as well, Haight said. “These are the middle of the winter, people in close proximity, frequent contacts with all of these participants day in, day out,” he said. “You as board members are speaking with almost everyone in the room … it’s this very organic and human interaction. It’s inconceivable, for those of us who have been to a board meeting, to get through a board meeting where no one gets sick.” The board members were divided on personal feelings but voted unanimously to pass a set of recommendations about how to scheduling meetings this winter. For now, they’ll be holding the Oct. 15-16 meeting via videoconference, at which time they’ll decide what to do about the remaining meetings in the 2020-21 meeting cycle, which are scheduled to start with the Prince William Sound meeting in Cordova on Dec. 11-17. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said the department had considered the risk to the community of Cordova in brining staff, board members, and other attendees to the community in the middle of a pandemic, especially with the limited health care resources in the small community. At the same time, though, he said it would be difficult for the department to push the meetings off entirely until next year. That would mean that the department would have to double up on meetings with those already scheduled for the next cycle, and that may not be possible with the existing budget. The board generally agreed with that assessment and generally didn’t like the idea of virtual meetings to replace full board meetings. Board member Gerard Godfrey said the quality of participation would not be the same. “Ideally, we should move forward in person if it’s possible and practical and feasible, because I think there are going to be too many essential factors lost in a virtual meeting,” he said. The board members passed a recommendation for staff to bring back recommendations for options regarding the later meetings at the October work sessions as well. Public comments were divided, with some urging the board to take up virtual meetings. The Board of Fisheries doesn’t currently have any way to telephonically or remotely participate other than submitting written comments ahead of time; neither does the Board of Game. Multiple commenters pointed out that even in a normal year, traveling to attend and participate in the meetings can be very expensive, and after a summer with a blighted economy, this year might not be possible at all. But, on the other hand, other commenters — including major fishing organizations like the Southeast Alaska Seiners, Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance, and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska — agreed with Haight and Fish and Game staff that a virtual meeting just wouldn’t work. Tina Fairbanks, the executive director of the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association, said in a letter that holding the full meetings virtually could exacerbate existing inequities. “Taking the process to an online format is likely to create even greater barriers to participation,” she said. “The individuals and communities likely to already be affected by barriers to participation are also likely to be disproportionately disadvantaged compared to more centrally-located, technologically advanced groups and individuals. Those that are most well versed in the board process and/or more well-connected to decision-makers will have even greater access, likely greater time, and thus greater influence on the process by the simple fact that so many others will be unable to participate in the process.” Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, wrote in a letter to the board that she didn’t support hold the October work session either online or in person, as both have “insurmountable challenges.” She asked the board to postpone all meetings to see how the pandemic develops in the state. The board is scheduled to meet virtually on Oct. 15-16 for a worksession dealing with agenda change requests, non-regulatory proposals, and escapement goal reports from Fish and Game staff. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bizarre salmon season winds down short of state projections

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct that 21.2 million pinks had been caught in Kodiak in the 2020 season. On top all the other effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been a strange year for Alaska’s commercial salmon fisheries. As the fisheries are winding down, the total landings are about 17 percent behind the projections statewide. The Copper River sockeye run was a flop, as was the chum run statewide, and the silver salmon harvest was down everywhere except Kodiak and Bristol Bay. Prices were down, too, and processors had the extra expense and responsibility of keeping workers healthy in remote communities at close quarters. Copper River’s early season sockeye openers seemed to bode ill for the state. After just a few paltry catches, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the fishery, hoping to boost escapement. The reds just never showed up. The sonar at Miles Lake stopped counting July 28 and met the minimum escapement, but without a commercial fishery. Sockeye runs started similarly slowly in Upper Cook Inlet, and stalled out when poor king salmon returns led to a complete closure for East Side setnets and restrictions for drift gillnets in mid-July. Bristol Bay largely shrugged off the poor news of the early season, though, and delivered close to the same number of landings as last year: just 9 percent fewer, with about 39.2 million sockeye landed. On top of that harvest, the Egegik, Ugashik, and Naknek-Kvichak districts exceeded their sockeye escapement goals. The Naknek River blew its goal away; more than 4.1 million sockeye passed that river before July 21, the highest escapement on record, according to ADFG. Bristol Bay is the heavyweight in the wild sockeye salmon world; more than three quarters of the sockeye harvested in the state come from there. So the prices posted there for the beginning of the season are usually an indicator for what the value of the harvest is going to be. Usually. “What we’ve seen when it comes to salmon prices is a general decline across the state and across all species,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist specializing in fisheries with the McDowell Group. “Because Bristol Bay is such a high value fishery, a lot of attention is paid to the base price that is posted there, and that was down about 50 percent from last year. There’s a lot of reasons for that.” One of those reasons is because of all the costs processors had to swallow related to the pandemic. Bringing in workers, quarantining them, testing them regularly, and providing protective equipment is expensive. But on top of that, the Bristol Bay sockeye hit in a big pulse rather than being spanned out. Because of capacity, the processors generally moved toward head-and-gutting rather than more added-value products, like filleting and roe, Evridge said. While Alaska fish are entering a more favorable market because the retail sector is recovering and some other stocks haven’t been producing, like Russian farmed fish, prices are generally lower for farmed fish, which may harm the retail prices for Alaska fish, he said. There’s also the economic pressure on consumers to consider. Overall, it paints a picture of uncertainty for Alaska seafood. “2020 is an unusual year, and the early indicators are one of a decline in value, but we’re really going to have to wait and see how it all shakes out in terms of price adjustments made throughout this winter,” he said. “We will have a better handle on what the final price is in the spring of next year.” The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association noted strong retail sales in a press release Sept. 8, praising the fleet and industry for its pandemic prevention measures “Grocery and seafood retailers took notice of this year’s harvest, with several new partners signing on for summertime promotions of fresh sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay,” the organization stated. “Eight retail chains containing over 1,200 individual stores hosted branded Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon promotions or promoted salmon from Bristol Bay online, with many seeing significant sales gains.” Kodiak also saw a significantly better season than other regions. As of Sept. 3, about 21.2 million pink salmon had been harvested, more than three times the harvest in 2018. The sockeye harvest was behind the 2019 landings, but silvers were slightly ahead, with 377,000 silvers landed. The South Alaska Peninsula is doing better than last year for pink salmon, with about 4.1 million harvested, but is still tracking behind the multi-year averages. On the other hand, Chignik experienced one of its worst seasons on record. Both the early and late sockeye runs were extremely weak, prompting closures on the commercial fishery there. Up until ADFG pulled out the weir in the Chignik River on Aug. 27, only 309,702 sockeye had been counted for the entire season, which wasn’t enough for either run to meet its escapement goal. That’s the third year in a row for the early run, and ADFG doesn’t project that any remaining fish will help the late run meet its escapement goal. The chum run made its escapement in the Chignik Management Area made its escapement, but the pink run did not. Two years ago, the community received a federal disaster declaration for a similarly poor run and closure and is just now seeing funds distributed to cover that disaster. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

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